The case for overlay districts in Oak Bluffs


For all intents and purposes, Oak Bluffs has made it impossible for professional service providers to open a business practice outside of our downtown. Furthermore, commercial businesses have no option to stage their operations anywhere in the Town of Oak Bluffs. With the exception of certain parts of downtown, the entire town is residentially zoned. This makes the only viable option for growth to be in the owner’s backyard under the home-business bylaw. 

Oak Bluffs’ current form of zoning has negatively impacted everyone’s quality of life. A lack of planning for commercial and professional services has resulted in unregulated, illegal operations throughout our town. 

It’s forty years too late to designate areas of town for professional and commercial needs. There is simply no space left. Long established businesses that predated town zoning have been choked out by residential interests without consideration for the impacts of these growing residential needs and the pressures placed upon the commercial businesses servicing them.

Because rezoning is not an option, overlay districts are an effective planning tool that provide a framework for well thought out proposals, which address our collective needs for responsible commercial and professional growth in balance with our economy.

Let’s look at both the light industrial/mixed use overlay district (LIMOD) and the professional services overlay district (PSOD). 


  • LIMOD – Enables the Town to support the development of light industrial operation, mixed-use construction and associated affordable housing options by expanding permitted uses in existing residentially zoned areas within the overlay district. To clarify, these remain residentially zoned areas. First and foremost, any proposal to operate within an LIMOD must adhere to strict standards and undergo a rigorous special permit process with no as-of-right language implied or otherwise stated.


  • PSOD – Enables the Town to support the use of residential properties providing important professional services to the community outside of downtown while maintaining the residential character of the neighborhood within the PSOD. Through the rigorous special permit process, this by-law will permit the provision of professional services to alleviate overcrowding, traffic, and the demand for downtown parking.


To state the obvious, we aren’t working with a blank slate and there are no easy answers here. Collectively we have inherited a thriving Island community, complete with growing needs, finite space, and decades of short-sighted zoning. But we have an opportunity to implement practical, long-term solutions with the planning tools available to us. 

T. Ewell Hopkins is the chairperson of the Oak Bluffs Planning Board


  1. Why would you place a LIMOD in an already designated Water Resource Protection Overlay District? This is proposed for the Holmes Hole Road area, which sits between three Tisbury wells. Oak Bluffs is planning to pollute our drinking water. Please vote no.

    • Could it be because he never really cared about the water and only used the big droplet on his community page to further his manipulation of the track project as he promised his yoga people in WT and chilmark?

      I would say go with this LIMOD only if you take the special permit out of the hands of the planning board. They should not get the first application and the special for review. It gives people with agendas like Mr Hopkins too much power. Also change the voting for special permit to match all other voting methods. Ties lose. He has this so rigged that the next chair has the same power. Too much power to manipulate.

  2. With all due respect to Mr. Hopkins and his years of service on the Town Planning Board, I beg to differ with his statements about the proposed LIMOD. When he says that LIMOD allows for “expanding permitted uses in existing residentially zoned areas within the overlay district,” he is misstating the proposed Zoning Warrant for LIMOD. I am a professional planner who has reviewed more than 1,000 site plan, special use permit, and subdivision applications over the years for planning boards, including a number for mining projects. One prominent example of his misstatement is that “mining,” like the existing 100+ acre Goodale mine within the proposed LIMOD, is not currently permitted by Oak Bluffs’ Zoning Bylaw (see the current Zoning Use Table Section 3.1.3 found in Appendix A). Goodale has asphalt and concrete production at their mine, also not permitted by the Zoning Bylaw. If Goodale is not permitted, how can it still be operating? It is a pre-existing non-conforming use because it predates the Zoning Bylaws and such uses cannot generally expand and cease to exist if they go out of business for two years or more. If a use is not permitted by a Zoning Bylaw, that means it is prohibited and any new mines cannot be started. Goodale owns a 55 acre parcel nearby its existing mine in the proposed LIMOD and the LIMOD would specifically permit “mining” on parcels of 20 acres or more after approval by the Planning Board. There are a number of other potentially noxious uses that are not “permitted uses in existing residentially zoned areas…” you may want to examine (see “Proposed additions to the table” on page 050 in the Zoning Warrant). As to his other statement that: “Any proposal to operate within a LIMOD must adhere to strict standards and undergo a rigorous special permit process,” he should know better than to mislead readers with a false sense of security. The proposed LIMOD, in my professional opinion, has weak language that any good attorney will shoot a hole through because it states: “The Planning Board shall also consider the following criteria: The project’s production of dust odors, and noise…” (emphasis added). Stating that a Board “shall consider” is not the same as “shall limit,” “shall restrict” or “shall prohibit” in a rule. It just means that they will examine “dust, odors and noise” along with an applicant’s pleadings that the Island needs sand and gravel, the town will benefit from the additional property taxes, and impacts like those three cannot really be controlled for a heavy industry like mining. If this type of zoning change were to be proposed in my town in the Hudson Valley of NY (my town prohibits mining), I would do everything I could to prevent it from happening.

  3. I admire Ewell Hopkins’ lengthy service to Oak Bluffs but take exception to his position on LIMODs. Ewell states above: “A lack of planning for commercial and professional services has resulted in unregulated, illegal operations throughout our town.“ This is as if to suggest that as soon as these LIMODs are formed, all the illegal businesses currently operating in OB neighborhoods will pull up stakes and move to these LIMODs and take with them their noise, traffic, and pollution. Rubbish! The Town of OB has not shown the ability or willingness to enforce zoning and will not do so in the future. These LIMODs will introduce commercial activity IN ADDITION TO and not INSTEAD OF that in OB residential neighborhoods. This is a “lose, lose” scenario for OB townspeople. Let’s see OB enforce current zoning before it considers increasing its responsibilities and workload. Vote NO.

  4. Interesting Ewell, how does a self professed environmentalist and tree hugger adamantly craft then push through new zoning proposals that will risk the health of people, our environment and our culture?

  5. Go to a residential neighborhood adjacent to the downtown area in the summer. The people who live there cannot park in front of their *own* homes courtesy of the overflow from downtown, the Turo drivers parking their commercial vehicles and the SSA parkers that use residential neighborhoods like a Palmer lot annex.

    Curious about PSOD – and how this is going to go about “maintaining the residential character of the neighborhood within the PSOD”.

    It’s already a disaster for people who just want to be able to get in and out of their houses without having their walkways blocked or not have to circle their own block so they don’t have to walk half a mile with their groceries in the rain.

    Don’t send more commercial traffic into the neighborhoods.

    Real people live here.

  6. I am glad we have the newspapers available to express ourselves on this issue. A group of OB neighbors pooled money to create lawn signs expressing our opposition to this proposal, and we woke up on Sunday April 7th to find 17 of the lawn signs have been stolen from our yards. If we cannot express concerns before the proposal goes into place, it doesn’t bode well for what might happen if it does go through.

    Stealing lawn signs is petty. It is not who we are as a community and will not quiet the valid concerns of your neighbors. It only further proves that our conerns are not listened to by people who are trying to push through the redistricting proposal, and are not willing to engage in dialogue or hear different views.

    We will be heard when we vote NO on this proposal.

  7. Unfortunately, this statement of support leaves out mention that there is already proposed industrial development in a pristine residential area that is part of Area 1 of the proposed LIMOD. The residents who would be impacted are Tisbury residents who have no say. This letter of support lacks substance and erodes the credibility of this proposal..

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